The new book “The Fight to Save the Town” is not about bad guys and heroes, although it sounds like it could be.
Written by Stanford University law professor Michelle Anderson, the work profiles former Lawrence Mayor Dan Rivera and many others who have battled what the author calls “citywide poverty.”
But Anderson said that, given the nature of the work that these people have done and are doing, it is inappropriate to cast them as “brave leaders in red capes.”
“Although this book names individuals and organizations, it is ultimately about how they work together,” she writes. “It is about all the unnamed people who stand with them.”
Anderson defines citywide poverty as “stacking up in particular cities, towns and counties,” where “incomes are depressed across much of the town, not just in small pockets.”
Statistically, citywide poverty is present when “at least 20 percent of residents live under the poverty line” and “median incomes are less than two-thirds of the state median income.”
Anderson focuses on four such communities across the country: Stockton, California; Detroit, Michigan; Josephine County, Oregon; and, Lawrence, Massachusetts.
“Each town was a toiling labor colony of the First Gilded Age, a hometown of the mid-century middle class, and, by late century, a crater of postindustrialism,” she writes.
Since 2008, that crater has only gotten deeper as inequality has widened in the Merrimack Valley and across the country.
“The twenty-first century, and especially the Great Recession, slammed these towns’ residents and their government finances,” Anderson writes.
She first encountered Lawrence while doing a nationwide study of towns that had been placed into receivership following the Great Recession. Technically, Lawrence didn’t fit into this category, although a financial overseer was appointed for the city in 2010 and served until 2019.
But Lawrence stood out, with the other three places described in “The Fight to Save the Town,” for another reason.
“In the face of all these hardships, advocates in the four places profiled in this book found a way forward,” Anderson writes.
She focuses on the years 2016 to 2020 and opens the Lawrence chapter by profiling a young woman, Destiny Rodriguez, who is working as a waitress to support two children, but doesn’t make enough to pay all her bills.
When Rodriguez saw a Facebook post for a program at Northern Essex Community College that offered training to become a teacher’s aide, boosting her pay to $17 per hour in the process, she jumped at the chance.
Rodriguez had to continue working full time while attending classes, and nearly lost her apartment three times. But she was one of 17 graduates in the program’s first year, making it through with help from her peers.
“Another supportive network, the people who had built the program, also attended Rodriguez’s graduation,” Anderson writes.
These were staff at the adult educational school who wrote her curriculum, teachers at the college who taught it, and case workers who helped students get jobs that accommodated their schedules.
There were also social workers who arranged apprenticeships at schools and emergency food and housing assistance, along with members of “the nonprofit Lawrence Community Works,” which “had led coordination and fundraising for the program.”
All of the people in this network passed what Lane Glenn, president of Northern Essex Community College, described to Anderson as the “cell phone test,” because they were listed as contacts in each other’s cell phones.
She sees such networks as 21st-century versions of the Bread and Roses strike in 1912, which started at Everett Mill and did so much to create better conditions for working people.
“Concepts such as ‘civic engagement’ or ‘building community networks’ can sound like empty jargon,” Anderson writes. “The expression, ‘it takes a village’ is overused. In Lawrence, these ideas look like something real.”
In places with citywide poverty, governments are also poor, thanks to falling tax revenues and cutbacks in state and federal aid. Anti-tax measures that have sought to drown government in the bathtub, in anti-tax activist Grover Norquist’s vivid image, end up drowning more than the government, Anderson writes.
Strapped local governments often try to regain some prosperity by attracting new residents, subsidizing large businesses, deferring costs, enforcing leases, or arresting people, but these measures are counterproductive, according to Anderson.
“This plan is a broken social compact with the people of poor places,” she writes.
A more useful solution is to invest in the people who live in poor places. That was Mayor Rivera’s practice while in office, Anderson writes, and it not only helps constituents, but leads to better governance.
Rivera summed up his administration’s approach with the slogan “First who, then what,” as a “reminder that his staff’s work was for and about residents, not for outsiders or their perceptions.”
City hall was also involved in the network of institutions that sought to raise the wages of parents with children in city schools by training them for careers in education or health care. Destiny Rodriguez was one of these.
Known as the Working Cities Challenge Initiative, and using funds from the Federal Reserve Bank, they succeeded in helping more than 200 parents find better jobs, and increased their wages by an average of 25 percent, Anderson wrote.
Anderson also writes about networks that were developed by the nonprofits Lawrence Community Works and Groundwork Lawrence, which encourage neighbors to discuss community problems with each other and help each other with practical problems like fixing their houses.
Lawrence Community Works and Groundwork Lawrence have also been involved in organizing redevelopment projects like the development of Dr. Nina Scarito Park and the Spicket River Greenway. The latter involved a number of institutional partners, but also sought the input and assistance of individual citizens.
“By connecting neighbors to one another, envisioning and maintaining that park has also generated indirect gains for civic education, governmental accountability, and access to services,” Anderson writes.
That’s because participating in such a project helps people understand the functions and limitations of government better, which leads them to demand more from its services.
“When people shape government through participation, they might actually need less of it,” Anderson writes. “When people withdraw, they will get less from their government even as they need more.”